BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Two disappointing runs for early-round draft picks came to an end with the teams that selected them on Monday, when the Buffalo Bills traded inside linebacker and 2011 third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard to the Indianapolis Colts for outside linebacker and 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes, according to the Bills’ official team website.
Sheppard made 24 starts for the Bills over the past two seasons and racked up 150 total tackles, but he did not establish himself as the three-down presence and playmaker at middle linebacker that the team hoped they had drafted two years ago. Now, as the Bills switch to a defense that emphasizes versatility and uses many 3-4 fronts, the run-stopping middle linebacker did not project to be a great fit in their defense.
Hughes was drafted with expectations of becoming a big-impact pass-rusher in the Colts’ defensive end rotation, but he has been a big disappointment, managing just five sacks in his first three seasons. That said, he has experience playing both defensive end and outside linebacker, and after the Bills surprisingly chose not to draft any pass-rushers this year, he will provide much-needed depth on the edge.
One player who will benefit greatly from the result of this trade is Kiko Alonso, the Oregon inside linebacker who was their second of two second-round draft picks (No. 46 overall selection). Alonso is a more versatile, athletic linebacker than Sheppard, and he is a good fit to play in the 3-4 defense, having experience in that defense from playing at Oregon.
A 6’3”, 238-pound linebacker who is a fluid athlete, can attack the line of scrimmage and defeat blocks with his size and speed but can also make plays in coverage, Alonso has the ability to play either linebacker spot in a 3-4 and both in the middle and outside in a 4-3 look. With Sheppard being traded, Alonso should be in line to start immediately alongside Nigel Bradham as the team’s MIKE linebacker.
But while Alonso and Bradham are both athletic, versatile and high-upside playmakers, neither player has had the opportunity to prove himself as a viable starter yet, and the Bills have very little depth behind them among inside linebackers. While Sheppard may not have been part of the Bills’ long-term plans, there is now a need for the Bills to add more depth at inside linebacker.
A player who has been rumored as a potential late free-agent addition by the Buffalo Bills is Karlos Dansby, a very good run-stopping middle linebacker who finished 11th in the NFL in total tackles last season with 134. Dansby visited the Bills earlier this month, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and though he is 31 years old, he would still be an upgrade at inside linebacker who would give the team an experienced, productive player to lead their linebacker rotation, especially against the run.
The biggest hassle in whether Dansby eventually ends up a member of the Bills could come down to his asking price. If he is willing to sign in Buffalo on a 1-2 year deal around the $3 million per year range, he would be a great value. The Bills may be hesitant, however, to sign Dansby to a longer-term deal worth more money, even though they still have more than $13 million in cap space available for this season, according to Spotrac.
As for Hughes, he will likely factor in as a rotational pass-rusher who can line up both on the line in four-man fronts and at outside linebacker in 3-4 fronts. He demonstrates good athleticism, pass-rushing ability and also strength against the run as a prospect out of TCU, and though his skill set has not shown up consistently in Indianapolis, a change of scenery and defensive scheme could revitalize his career.
Mario Williams projects to lead the Bills’ pass-rush rotation, with Mark Anderson and Manny Lawson also in the mix as rush outside linebackers. Hughes will likely be used primarily in four-man fronts, as Anderson and Lawson are both better fits to come from the second level.
Hughes has two years remaining on his rookie contract, and is set to incur a cap hit of $1.93 million in 2013, according to Spotrac.